Form is Emptiness and Other Stories We Tell Ourselves


This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on Saturday, August 3, 2013, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.


“Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form.”

From the Heart Sutra

There is a risk in any religion that we’ll get lost in ideas and lose contact with the rest of life — that our ideas about our practice, the nature of reality or whatever may become a barrier to really experiencing life fully and vulnerably as it arises from moment to moment.


Meister Eckhart, the 14th century Christian mystic, famously said, “Pray God that we may lose God for the sake of finding God.”


Eckhart clearly understood that our ideas about what we’re seeking can get in the way of actually finding what we’re seeking.


There’s a way in which Zen is all about imploding conceptual barriers.


Within BoWZ, I think we’re pretty good at not approaching Zen as a thing, as a philosophy.  We’re pretty good at practicing Zen in a way that helps us lose Zen for the sake of finding life — or, better yet, at practicing Zen as nothing that needs to be lost, because Zen practice and the rest of life are synonymous in a way that enhances our experience of all of it.


Still, we have our concepts, sparse and spare as they may be, and so there is some risk of getting lost in them, of thinking they sum it all up.


The concept that’s most central to this Zen project is expressed in the Heart Sutra as the unity of form and emptiness.


Form is exactly emptiness.  Emptiness, exactly form.


We often express this same notion as the unity of the Relative and the Absolute.


Personally, I find this way of thinking about things very compelling as notions go.


It’s a good story, in part, because it’s a simple story, yet one that resists oversimplification.


For me, it’s also a good story, because it seems to comport with my experience.


There’s this particular perspective from which all phonomena, including oneself, seem distinct.  And there’s this perspective from which things seem unitary, seem as one.


One angle sometimes can predominate, and sometimes intensely so.


There may be times in our lives when we feel intensely separate, intensely isolated; in moments of great physical or emotional pain, for example.


And we may have experiences — in sports, dancing, on a sailboat, in the wilderness, drawing or painting, on the cushion — when we feel utterly lost in it all, as if there were no I, no me.


And then there’s this angle from which we may experience ourselves and all else in a both-and sort of way.  As distinct-and-not-separate.


James Ford often points to the shifting nature of our experience, of our perspective.


Sometimes this perspective.


Sometimes that.


Sometimes both.


Sometimes neither.


In this pointing we can see that form and emptiness aren’t things.


In fact, these terms and the relationship between them are catnip for the this-and-thating part of our mind that tends to get in the driver’s seat, assume our subject position without us noticing, and so to dominate our awareness.


Then it starts spinning stories.


This is good.


That’s bad.


I want more of this.


Less of that.


If you tend to relate to the relative and absolute as ideas when you hear those words used in our liturgy, or in a book, or in a Dharma talk like this one – if you tend to think there’s a philosophy or a grand cosmic conceptual framework embodied in those words – then I encourage you to encounter them in a spirit of playfulness instead.


As philosophy, these words really are pretty slippery.


But, perhaps we can let them be slippery like a slide.




We humans are storytellers.  It seems to be in our nature, and allowing ourselves to get lost in tall tales can be immensely captivating.


I’m rather partial to a good spy story myself.


Yet we can become too captive to these captivating stories, perhaps especially the most functional ones, the best ones.


The real deal is what’s unfolding right here, now.


We may tell stories about it, and we may filter it through our stories, but it’s not a story.


It can’t be held captive by us, and if we know we’re grounded in it, and are it, we’re set free.


Bounded and free.


Form and emptiness, the relative and the absolute, the divisible and the indivisible, the divisible within and as the indivisible:  this is a powerful story, and it captures something that serves as both challenge and invitation to our critical faculties.  One dimension of who we are — this bicameral brain of ours — seems to crave these this-and-that stories.


It actually manufactures these stories it craves.  Usefully manufactures them, so long as we can see them as stories, and not let them dictate our actions (though we sometimes may choose to act according to script).


I personally find the spare, playful story that’s central to our Zen tradition more compelling, and more comprehensible, and more comprehensive, than the much longer and much more elaborate metaphysical narratives of some other religious traditions.


But only if I relate to it playfully.


Our ideas, however appealing, and however effective as pointers, are cheap substitutes for the personal experience of really touching life with our whole being.


To my thinking, Zen is simply about cultivating our capacity for whole-being touching.


Helping us touch, moment by moment, what’s always right before us.


And perhaps progressively bringing our personal — and, ultimately, I do hope — collective stories and ideas more in line with what we see and learn and feel from that touching.


Honoring our best stories and ideas, while holding them very lightly.